External Affairs

Rights Groups Assail India’s Human Rights Record on Capitol Hill

As human rights take a backseat in US foreign policy, a coalition of Indian Americans released a comprehensive report on human rights abuses in India on Capitol Hill.

Indians at a rally in New York. Representational image. Credit: Reuters/Files

Washington: Advocates for Indian minorities are asking for the impossible – that the US restore human rights on its foreign policy agenda and put pressure on governments. It’s a demand unlikely to be met even as US opinion makers says American values must go side-by-side with American interests.

President Trump made it clear at the Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia this week that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others.” But Vice President Mike Pence said earlier this month, “protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration. America will continue to stand for religious freedom of all people, of all faiths, across the world.”

However, Pence went on to elaborate that those who “stare persecution in the face every day in distant lands, you have the prayers of the American people, prayers of my family and you have the prayers of the president of the United States.” He couldn’t have been clearer that it’s prayers, not action, that the US is now offering.

Under the Trump administration, human rights and the promotion of democracy have been pushed to the margins of US foreign policy with realpolitik firmly at the centre. Minorities the world over, including in India, are unlikely to get support from Washington as the human rights agenda goes into the background.

But activists are not giving up hope. On May 23, Alliance for Justice and Accountability, a coalition of Indian Christians, Dalits, Muslims and progressive forces, released a comprehensive report on human rights abuses against India’s social and religious minorities on Capitol Hill.

The report says the abuses have increased since the BJP government came to power. “This grim reality is already being acknowledged within India as well as internationally.”

The activists’ fervent pleas, the impassioned cries and the demands were largely heard by their own members and a few media representatives. “The very soul of India is at stake. Any elected government has to be accountable to the constitution of India, the laws of the land,” said Ajit Sahi, a spokesman for the coalition.

To the disappointment of organisers, not a single US Congressman showed up. Congressman Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, had promised to attend but he couldn’t make the time. A couple of staff aides dropped by to pick up the report, which the activists hope will circulate through Congressional offices.

But it is the executive branch of the US government, which frames the agenda with foreign governments, not the legislative branch, a Congressional aide explained. Still, American lawmakers can create trouble if they so desire as in the case of Compassion International, a Christian charity that closed its offices in India after what it said was harassment by the BJP government. The government said it refused to comply with the law.

The 63-page report focuses on incidents of religious violence, vigilantism, extra judicial killings, “love jihad,” re-conversion to Hinduism, restrictions on freedom of expression and intimidation of rights groups. It begins by citing several international reports on India’s record, not all of which can be dismissed as motivated or slanted.

At the recent peer review of India’s record by the UN Human Rights Council where India received questions from 112 countries, the second highest number after South Africa. It could not have made the government proud, no matter the public posture and finessing of the record.

India also came in for criticism in the US State Department’s report on religious freedom. The quasi-official US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said “religious tolerance” had decreased while the violations had increased. Human Rights Watch in its 2016 report said attacks by those who claim to be supporters of the BJP are an “increasing concern” in India.

The EU’s Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World urged India to do more to fight “deeply entrenched societal practices. The Pew Research Center placed India among the worst ten in the 2016 global index of human rights alongside Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria and Afghanistan.

And finally, India’s home ministry figures released last year support what others are saying – a 17% rise in the incidence of violence against minorities in 2015 over the previous year, with 97 killed and 2,200 injured.

“Mr Modi says ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas,’ [which] means everyone is included. But vigilantism is taking place in BJP-ruled states,” Sahi said at the meeting, adding that the violence related to cow protection or saving Hindu girls from Muslim boys was not a grassroots phenomenon but an organised campaign.

An unidentified young Dalit activist at the meeting said minority members of the Indian diaspora have decided to stand up against the “forces of Hindu right” in the US. Dalits, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians make a “strong” coalition. “The beast has woken up. We don’t buy the Modi pill,” she said.

The report says the “unprecedented success of the BJP has provided a tremendous fillip to Hindu supremacist forces who form a significant portion of its base.” Law enforcement agencies have taken their cue and there has been “an uptick in the practice of arbitrary and unlawful detention, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terrorism suspects in police custody.”

The National Human Rights Commission registered 36,000 complaints against the police in 2015-16 but only in 94 cases was a first information report filed against the police, the report says.

It is a depressing compendium of crimes and misdemeanors over the last three years. It corroborates what many Indians feel in their heart – something is happening in India that was not happening before. Some recall Lalu Prasad Yadav’s rule in Bihar without a single case of violence against Muslims ever occurring.

The two explanations given most often by ministers and supporters of the government are – the cases of violence are random and that there has always been violence between communities in India.

The rationalisation begs the question – isn’t it the government’s responsibility to improve upon the past, not make the present worse and the future scary?

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.

 

  • Siddhartha

    “Some recall Lalu Prasad Yadav’s rule in Bihar without a single case of violence against Muslims ever occurring.”

    I don’t know if the author is carrying a brief for Laloo Yadav, sounds like it. Who in their right mind would give a clean chit to Laloo’s “Jungle Raj” – not even his erstwhile or current allies have given a clean chit like this to RJD.

    Why is it important what a questionable organization like USCIRF have to say about religious freedom in India ? This is the same august body which lobbied for the denial of a US visa to PM Modi, and is also seen as providing cover for “predatory proselytization”, has been accused in the past of anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim bias etc.

    I think all right minded Indians would like to see improvement in communal and caste harmony, and it certainly does not make anyone feel good about low rankings in international surveys, which may be somewhat biased but nevertheless showing up on a watch list means that things needs to get fixed.

    Activists and academics who go all the way to Capitol Hill to highlight the ills of this society perhaps wittingly or unwittingly also expose our underbelly:
    – that we are still colonized, so please treat us like a client state
    – we prefer to cut our nose to spite our face
    – we are out and out mercenaries, we support any cause as long as we can ride the gravy train